Making a name for yourself as a DJ has less to do with the work you do than the type of person you are. Keeping your mind open to fortunate opportunities is right up there with making sure that the work you do and the relationships you hold with others are both steadily improving over time. Here are a few ways to change your thinking about what it means to be a really reliable DJ, and a great person to work with.
Be good, then be cool
Artists are so much more interesting when they’re not exclusively focused on being cool. Of course you need some swagger. People are looking at you all the time! But the unstated assumption that you’re above others or won’t play certain types of gigs because you deserve better is probably holding you back. Most DJs are exactly where they’re supposed to be. It’s actually not that common that someone gets a very lucky break and shortcuts the system of working your way up. That means that the few DJs who do hold positions in the coolest, most enviable spots usually don’t get there and stay there on charm alone. Having a good ear and active listening are essential skills that must be learned. Having the discipline to actually look up your recent Shazams is a skill. Keep your ear to the ground. This is the reputation you’re trying to build. The charm and style should just be the icing on the cake. Be useful to your audience and clientele.
Play weddings (sigh)
Terrible advice, right? Who wants to jukebox yesterday’s pop hits for ungrateful drunks? Here’s the thing, though: it’s usually top dollar. And having a career in DJing normally means losing money in interesting ways and making it back in less exciting ways. There’s way too much advertising out there that aims to convince us to zoom in on yacht-owning superstar DJ folklore, and it’s simply too uncommon to be taken seriously. The overwhelming majority of professional creatives are not earning their living doing exactly what they want to do. A bad wedding gig is still better than a good day in the office. Focus not only on what you need to do to pay the bills, but what you’re going to do with your time off. Your time off is your chance to steer things in a better direction, away from rent-paying gigs and towards your own successful party. It’s your life, so pick a lifestyle and roll with it.
Have your own goals
We want it now. We all want success now. But it’s not all we we want. We want it to last. And sometimes we have to pick between the two. So maybe you want to be playing fewer weddings and more cool parties in 6 months. Maybe you want to own all your own gear and a van or a branded stage for more control over your image. Or be able to afford six months off between jobs so you can write and market some new material, or finally have the time to dig in to an online DJ course and raise yourself up. Your own time is an investment. These things will never just appear on their own. You have to will them into existence. Or better, you have to work them into existence. So, be as creative about your future as your are with your mixes and productions. Take risks with your time and effort. But keep things moving in the right direction. Are your productions and mixes getting traction? Are you taking the time to follow a couple of tutorials to educate yourself? Slowly over time, add new knowledge and techniques to your bag of tricks.
It’s not enough to stick a kick drum on a tempo-synced patch, copy the chart leader’s artwork and then go out and start dropping your ‘new stuff’. That’s the behavior of a DJ who still wants to be emulating other artists in 20 years. Responding passively, rather than creating actively. Fitting in rather than sticking out. This is the era of weirdness, for lack of a better word. The only way to build a reputation is to do something unique, because everything has apparently been done to death. So explore. Experiment. Go crazy. Your aim is not just popularity, style and a creative entrepreneurial livelihood. It’s innovation, technique and artistry. All the best artists have been through this trial by fire, some of them emerging to become renowned sources for imitation when their work is finally recognized as something special. Music is pushed forward by the sacrifices made when people just like you decide to risk their time exploring the potential of crazy ideas. Why else would the leading DJ equipment manufacturer call themselves Pioneer?
Making it in a very crowded business means having some serious discipline. Don’t be fooled by the commercials! The barrier to entry is very low, and it’s tough getting your name out there, but the results can be overwhelmingly gratifying. Most importantly, have faith in your own abilities, and don’t second-guess the quality of your music.
John Bartmann is an award-winning music producer and DJ.